Democracy and Closed Doors

 

Anecdotal evidence suggests there is a general level of cynicism about politics today. Large sections of the public express the view that it is ‘business as usual’ no matter which party is in power, that politicians are all the same,  that they are adept at deceiving the public, that they spin the truth, hide it or lie about it, pulling the wool over our eyes and failing to keep to their election promises. The lack of transparency and the widespread perception of the general irrelevance of ballot-box promises limits the level of engagement in politics.

When it comes to transparency, according to Cabinet Office guidelines, all ministerial meetings are to be minuted and the minutes should be available whenever it is deemed to be in the public interest to examine more closely what goes on behind closed doors. The Chancellor, George Osborne has had several meetings in recent months with media magnates, including Rupert Murdoch, News Corps mogul, Aidan Barclay, chairman of the Telegraph Croup, and Lord Hall, director general of the BBC, for which minutes have either not been taken or have not been made available for scrutiny.   The shadow culture secretary, Maria Eagle has called upon the chancellor to explain these ‘off the record’ meetings. At a time when the future of the BBC is under examination and there is talk of privatising Chanel 4 this lack of transparency is especially worrying. There have been similar ‘off the record meetings’ with Google preceding the ‘sweetheart’ tax agreement with HMRC. These discussions and negotiations should be subject to scrutiny.

When it comes to election promises, The Guardian newspaper has reported that a two-year study of London’s most expensive neighbourhoods, lead by Professor Rowland Atkinson of Sheffield University, released its findings this week. The Guardian reports that the study has concluded that “London has become one of a handful of international havens for the very wealthy” and that London has simultaneously achieved a reputation for being the “money-laundering capital of the world” (David Batty, 24/01/16). It would appear that when it comes to financing a purchase of an ultra-expensive property a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ strategy is the norm. This contravenes the government’s stated intention to clean up malpractice in the banking sector.

Atkinson’s study of the London housing market concludes that in a strategy overseen by central as well as local government, the less well off are being forced out of their homes in order to make way for millionaire’s mansions. This housing strategy for London is enthusiastically backed by Mayor Boris Johnson. The strategy flies in the face of the government’s stated policy to directly support the interests of those struggling to find accommodation by increasing the supply of ‘affordable housing’ across the capital. On the contrary, the government has used such measures as the ‘bedroom tax’ to attempt to remove the worst off in society from their homes in order to prepare huge swathes of the capital for redevelopment and gentrification.

As a direct result of the government’s housing strategy security for private tenants in London has deteriorated while rents have escalated. The hardship experienced by those on average, let alone below-average incomes, is well known. Meanwhile returns on buy-to-let property investments have soared.

A feeble but implausible attempt to justify the government’s strategy rests on using the so-called ‘price effect’ to engender a market response to increase the supply of low-cost housing. A strategy of making housing unaffordable might be designed to help ease the bottleneck!  Such suggestions rest on theories of markets responses under conditions of ‘perfect competition’. These theories rest on conditions such as ‘no barriers to entry’, ‘equal access to financial markets’, ‘perfect information’ etc. The validity of the assumptions on which the theory of ‘perfect competition’ is based is utterly discredited by even a cursory examination of the real world. The conclusion has to be that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market is unlikely to provide any immediate relief for those in desperate need of housing. In the short term at least so-called ‘market solutions’  are little more than a convenient smokescreen for the government’s socially regressive policies.

In view of continued, albeit unfounded, declarations that the government is doing all it can to unblock the shortage of low-cost housing the public is inclined to place the blame for shortages instead on ‘scroungers’ and ‘immigrants’. The Atkinson study indicates that this is simply not the true cause of the housing shortage in London. Rather the lack of low-cost housing, escalating prices and rents, poor availability, overcrowding, and deteriorating quality for the majority of people living in London, is the result of the deliberate policy choices of this government. Scaremongering about ‘foreign workers’ and ‘welfare cheats’ is simply another convenient distraction from the true motivations that lie behind the government’s housing policy.

The lack of transparency and accountability is worrying for many reasons, not least for the health of our democracy. For democracy to function properly the electorate needs information to be able to answer such questions as, “are these the policies we voted for in the last election?” and “is this the type of society we wish this nation to become?” Without scrutiny how is the influence of lobbyists to be held in check? Without independent, investigative journalism, without well-funded, independent academic research, without protection for whistleblowers, how is the public supposed to find out what is going on behind closed doors, to hold governments accountable or to make their wishes known through the ballot box? If we wish to live in a thriving democracy that we can be proud of we must defend the tenets of transparency and accountability to the hilt.

 

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